Non-fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 272 pages; 2018.
Ten years ago, on 7 February 2009, in unprecedented hot weather conditions, a series of bushfires — 400 separate fires giving off the heat equivalent of 500 atomic bombs! — raged across the state of Victoria, wiping out everything in their path, including whole townships and hundreds and thousands of hectares of farmland and bushland. One-hundred and eighty people lost their lives, making them the deadliest fires in Australian history.
On that particular Saturday — which later became known as Black Saturday — the Central Gippsland fires in and around the Latrobe Valley (just a 45 minute drive from where I grew up) burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people. It later transpired that the Churchill fire, which started in a pine plantation, was deliberately lit and a 39-year-old Churchill man was arrested on suspicion of arson.
That man, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison three years later, is the subject of Chloe Hooper’s extraordinary new book, The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.
A true crime story
The book, which is essentially a true crime tale, is divided into three parts covering the police investigation into the fire, the defence lawyers’ case and the court proceedings.
It’s written in a clear but lyrical style with a journalist’s eye for detail. Hooper’s descriptions of the fire, taken from witness statements, are particularly powerful.
One man saw his beehives combust from the sheer heat. ‘Trees ignited from the ground up in one blast, like they were self-exploding.’ Burning birds fell from trees, igniting the ground where they landed. ‘Everything was on fire, plants, fence posts, tree stumps, wood chip mulch, the inflatable pool. I put water on it, but it melted slowly to nothing.’ The aluminium tray of a ute [pick-up truck] ‘ran in rivulets on the ground’.
Likewise, her “picture” of the arsonist, Brendan Sokaluk, is even-handed and compassionate. She unearths his back story to find out how this single, unemployed man living on a disability pension had become a social outcast long before he lit the fire.
He was bullied at school and ostracised at work (he was a groundsman for 18 years, took stress leave and never went back). His odd behaviour as an adult, including the inability to make eye contact, poor interpersonal skills and his penchant for watching Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, marked him as “different”, never more so than on the afternoon of Black Saturday, when:
Brendan climbed onto his roof in Sheoke Grove and sat watching the inferno in the hills. His neighbours saw him and noticed that his face was streaked with dirt. He was wearing a camouflage-print outfit and a beanie. One hand shaded his eyes. All around, the sky was dark with smoke. Ash was falling. Tiny cinders burnt the throat on inhaling. Brendan glared down at the neighbours, then went back to watching his mother earth burn.
As per the book’s title, Hooper examines what makes an arsonist, in general, and why they do it. (Across Australia it is thought that 37 per cent of all vegetation fires are suspicious and that those that light them deliberately are usually “male; they are commonly unemployed; or had a complicated work history; they were likely to have disadvantaged social backgrounds, often with a family history of pathology, addiction and physical abuse; and many exhibited poor social or interpersonal skills”.)
And then she turns her focus on Sokaluk, who claims he accidentally lit the fire by throwing cigarette ash, wrapped in a serviette, out the window of his car when he was driving past the plantation. (The evidence suggests the fire was most likely started by a match or a cigarette lighter. It does not explain why there were two fires, one of either side of the road, which the police believe were both started by Sokaluk.)
This extraordinary case is brought to life by Hooper’s interviews with Selena McCrickard, Sokaluk’s Legal Aid lawyer, who comes across as being kind and compassionate but who is frequently frustrated by her client’s behaviour. When she has him mentally assessed, Sokaluk is diagnosed with autism, a condition that was practically unheard of in the 1970s when he was a kid and which goes some way to explaining his difficulties growing up and fitting into society.
Interviews with Sokaluk’s parents also help paint a much fuller picture of his childhood and day-to-day life and how they had always been worried about him but were unable to do much more than check up on him, take him on outings and ensure he paid his bills on time.
The Arsonist is a fine example of true crime reportage. As well as examining this particular shocking crime in forensic detail, Hooper puts it in a much larger context — how common arson is in Australia, why it occurs, who commits it, the difficulties associated with investigating it and the hatred such a crime generates in the public — to provide a well-rounded picture of pyromania.
The book does not come up with any clear-cut answers as to how to prevent people becoming firebugs. “If arson is an expression of a particular psychology, there will always be arsonists,” Hooper writes.
But it’s clear that just like social outcast Martin Bryant, who shot dead 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996 (see my reviews of Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, and The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard, two books about this case), we ignore children’s mental impairments and interpersonal difficulties at our peril.
The message I took from this book was the sooner children can be diagnosed and given appropriate support the better, not just for society as a whole but for those children who might otherwise be bullied and ostracised as Brendan Sokaluk was for his entire life.
The UK edition of The Arsonist will be published in paperback by Scribner UK on 30 May.
To find out more about this case, including an interview with Chloe Hooper and footage of Brendan Sokaluk’s police interview, please check out this edition of Australian Story:
This is my 9th book for #AWW2019